Laboring to Prevent a Fair Vote

Big Labor’s been busy this election cycle. Its legislative agenda includes many standard liberal issues, such as raising the minimum wage and restricting free trade. But one of organized labor’s highest priorities has received very little public attention: Labor officials want Congress to abolish secret ballot elections in union organizing drives.

Under existing laws, union organizers solicit workers’ signatures on cards calling for an election to determine if they want to join a union. Once at least 30 percent of workers in a firm have signed the cards, the union submits them to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Within a short time -- generally five to six weeks -- the government supervises a secret ballot election of workers at the company. If a majority of workers vote to join the union, the workers are organized.

The process is designed to ensure that each worker’s vote reflects his or her desires and is not based on outside pressure. Neither side may campaign in the polling area on election day. Each worker votes in privacy and how he or she votes is kept confidential. Neither the union nor management will know whether a given worker voted for or against joining a union, so workers can vote without fear of reprisals.

However, the government does not always require secret ballot elections. If union organizers submit authorization cards from at least half of the workers in a firm, the company can choose to recognize the union as its employees’ representative without holding an election. This is known as “card-check” since unions can organize workers by simply getting them to check a card, instead of voting in a secret ballot election. Under card-check, workers lose the privacy of a secret ballot.

Not surprisingly, organized labor prefers to “persuade” workers to join a union and start paying dues if their votes only count when they are standing face to face with paid union organizers. Most companies, however, recognize the unreliability of publicly signed cards and insist on secret ballot elections. Unions are pushing hard for Congress to change this. Under the Orwellian-named “Employee Free Choice Act,” the government would abolish secret ballot elections for workers and make public card-check campaigns the only basis for union organizing.

Few outside of Washington have heard of the issue, but unions have made it their cause célèbre. It is the United Steel Workers’ top legislative priority. Many candidates know they won’t get union support if they do not back card-check. Fred Frost, president of the South Florida AFL-CIO, has warned candidates “we are adamantly going to draw a line in the sand with this.” Nearly 250 federal lawmakers have fallen in line and sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to end secret ballot elections and replace them with public card-check campaigns.

As much as unions passionately want mandatory card-check, though, removing the confidentiality of a voting booth would expose workers to harassment and intimidation. Organized labor is a multi-billion dollar business, funded by union member’s compulsory dues. But it is a business in crisis, as fewer and fewer American workers decide to join.

Three in four Americans tell pollsters that they do not want to belong to a union, and union membership has dropped to a 70-year low. With plummeting membership and falling dues income, unions are desperate to organize every worker they can. Under this pressure, union organizers have frequently crossed the line when organizing workers whose employers agreed not to insist on a confidential vote.

Union organizers do not always tell workers what signing an authorization card actually means. They have been documented telling workers that the cards request information about the union, or that the cards simply record their attendance at an off-site meeting -- not that they are a legally binding contract. Workers who do not sign the cards are subjected to repeated home visits by union organizers harassing them to sign.

Workers who still do not voluntarily sign up may also face illegal threats. Union organizers targeting the MGM Hotel in Las Vegas told workers that if they did not sign the cards they would be fired when the union was recognized, or that they would lose their health benefits and 401(k) plans. Many employees who have signed up under card-check later stated that they only signed up to end the harassment.

Such high-pressure tactics vanish when workers have the protection and privacy of a secret ballot election. This is one reason why, by a 53-41 percent margin, union members tell pollsters that secret ballot elections are a better way to organize than public card-check.

Free elections and the privacy of the voting booth are fundamental democratic protections. They ensure that workers can vote their conscience without pressure or fear of reprisals. American workers should be aware that those who claim to speak for them are actually fighting against their right to vote in privacy.

James Sherk is a policy analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation, a leading Washington-based public policy institution.